Reprinted from the Glendale News-Press (6/17/2014)
By Jim Cragg
When it comes to honoring the men and women who serve in America’s military, actions speak louder than words. California lawmakers now have a chance to express true appreciation by passing the state ban on single-use plastic bags, SB 270, and creating more jobs for veterans here who make reusable bags.
Veterans are leading Californians’ shift away from throwaway plastic bags, which worsen pollution, to reusable bags, which greatly discourage dumping and support a sustainable workforce.
The company I founded has hired more than 20 former service members to piece and stitch reusable bags. Our workforce has grown as more than 100 municipalities around the state, including Glendale and Los Angeles County and city, have banned single-use plastic bags. Passage of the statewide ban will mean we can hire several more veterans to fulfill the expected increase in demand.
For several of the veterans on my staff, stable hours making bags provide them much more than a wage. They have a mission, with a tangible stack of accomplishment at the end of a shift and a deep sense of connection to customers, whom they sometimes spot on the street carrying their product.
Our business is part of an encouraging trend. America is making progress in reintegrating veterans into society. The unemployment rate among vets who have served since 2001 is at 9%, down from 10% just a year ago, but still above the national average of 6.3%.
Homelessness among veterans is also down, by 24% over the past three years, thanks in large part to deliberate efforts by the president and policy-makers to provide the former warriors living on our streets with housing and healthcare services.
Still, the ongoing scandal involving service delays in the federal Veterans Administration eats away at our faith in government to treat veterans with the dignity we deserve. Restoring integrity to healthcare access and quality treatment through the VA is crucial. Yet our national and state responsibility to returning veterans does not end with delivery of care.
For disabled vets like myself, the struggle to find our place in community is especially hard. This challenge is one reason our business making reusable bags holds value and potential. Disabled vets are some of our most productive workers. Getting hired and being equal members of a team provide them immense pride, and a lesson to other employers about the worth of an often neglected source of talent.
SB 270, which passed one Assembly committee and is now facing a hearing in the Appropriations Committee chaired by Glendale-area lawmaker Mike Gatto, represents a rare chance for lawmakers to strengthen a growing “green” industry here in California. Increased jobs and tax revenue from several sustainable companies making reusable bags stands in contrast to the $500 million of state taxpayers’ dollars, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, spent by localities catching and collecting plastic bags and other trash headed into our waterways.
Seven years into the push to ban single-use plastic bags, it would be a shame to lose this golden opportunity to achieve the bill’s passage. The message it would send to my staff of veterans is similarly unpalatable, reinforcing cynicism about the state of the democracy we fought to preserve.
Like most bills taking aim at pollution, SB 270 requires standing up to powerful opponents who see their profits at stake. I am not deterred by that challenge. Veterans look to state lawmakers not for lofty rhetoric or applause for our sacrifice. We look for leadership. We need this bill, which will expand our veteran workforce in California, to become law. Creating sustainable jobs is the most patriotic gesture of all.
JIM CRAGG is an Afghan war veteran who served as an Army Reserve major and is director of Green Vets L.A., a nonprofit that employs veterans to sew canvas bags.